Explorer, inventor, activist, and oceanographic popularizer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau introduced millions to the glories of the ocean through his popular movies. But he hated when people called them “documentaries.” Instead, he wanted his cinematic work—filled as it was with danger, awe, exotic mysteries, and a crew of wild-eyed nautical vagabonds wandering the oceans in an old minesweeper looking for excitement—known as “true adventure films.” The man we are treated to in Liz Garbus’ documentary “Becoming Cousteau” might have seen himself more as a filmmaker than naturalist, but he was first and foremost an adventurer.
A pleasantly beautiful, if sometimes flatly rendered film, “Becoming Cousteau” serves as a solid introduction to now somewhat-forgotten man who not so long ago was one of the world’s most beloved figures. Garbus starts in the 1930s, when Cousteau was a dashing French naval officer who discovered his love of deep-water diving while recovering from the car accident that sidelined his hopes of becoming a pilot. A man of sudden passions, Cousteau was so smitten by the sea that he confided to his journal (the text voiced by Vincent Cassel) that his life would be dedicated to “underwater exploration.” His young wife, Simone Melchior, was herself smitten not just with the open water (her family lineage was lousy with admirals) but also with this passionate, bright-eyed, hawk-nosed lean slip of a man who “smelled like the sea.”
Curious, impatient, and driven to go ever-deeper, Cousteau invented a new underwater breathing apparatus, the Aqua-Lung, which was largely responsible for scuba diving. It was not immediately clear, though, what this was good for besides extending the range of Cousteau and his diving buddies. After a post-World War II stint helping the French Navy search wrecked ships (one clip appears to show Cousteau or a compatriot lifting a corpse off of the seabed), Cousteau found his calling in 1951. That was the first year that he, Simone, their sons Jean-Michel and Philippe, and a volunteer crew of cigarette-puffing “drop-outs” took their raggedy vessel the Calypso on a donation-funded oceanographic voyage to the reefs of the Red Sea and points beyond. Like many wandering souls, Cousteau appeared to be not so much searching for a place as he was escaping from the drudgery of terrestrial life. In one very telling line from his journal, Cousteau says that “this need for escape would not exist if people were happy on land.”
That sense of escape came through in what we see of Cousteau’s first film. A gorgeous evocation of the underwater sublime, “The Silent World,” which he co-directed with an extremely young Louis Malle, won the Palme d’Or and an Oscar and made Cousteau a name. The films that came after followed much in the same vein, with Cousteau and the Calypso crew wandering the oceans looking for new aquatic wonders. Garbus gives Cousteau his due as a filmmaker, including a wealth of clips that illustrate his cinematic sensibility, particularly the obviously stagey but charming interstitials with the crew and little details designed to pop on screen like their signature red beanies (which Wes Anderson made doubly iconic in his Cousteau-on-acid fantasy, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”).
Since Cousteau had been obsessed with shooting film from the age of 13 and carried that habit throughout most of his life, Garbus is blessed with a wealth of archival footage with which to render her subject and his world. From the crisp black-and-white 1930s footage of Cousteau and friends diving, spearfishing, and slugging bottles of wine on the Mediterranean shore at Toulon to the rich textures of the alien-seeming sea life flitting through his 1950s and ’60s Technicolor films, “Becoming Cousteau” is a delight of sensual images. You can almost feel the salt drying on everyone’s skin.
In its later sections, Garbus digs somewhat beneath the surface in ways that feint at complicating his heroic presentation, but ultimately end up reinforcing the sense that this may have been one of the signature figures of the 20th century. Though Cousteau became synonymous with environmentalism, at different times in his career he made ends meet by working for oil companies. The film includes Cousteau’s claim that he helped discover the massive underwater oil field off Abu Dhabi. His early work included scenes of the crew wantonly killing sharks and even blowing up a reef just to get a better look at it.
But even in these instances, we see Cousteau, unlike many celebrated icons of his status, reckoning later with those choices and acknowledging the mistakes he made. What the film shows of Cousteau in the 1970s, a time when his outlook on the environmental future was becoming ever more dark and panicked, reveals that he saw his own errors mirrored in mankind’s casual disregard for a seemingly limitless resource like the ocean, only compounded to a planet-killing scale. Given that increasingly grim outlook, it is no surprise that ABC canceled his popular TV series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”—they were really looking more for the “look at the pretty fish” angle than dealing with what he called “the fate of mankind.”
Still, the Cousteau of the film is ultimately a positive figure. Like that other great postwar popularizer of the wonders of the natural world, Carl Sagan, Cousteau brought a boyish eagerness to his presentation that helped audiences connect to his at-times otherworldly quests. The beaming delight with which he is greeted by an auditorium full of adoring American children, who fully appreciated his sense of wonder and boundless possibility, indicates just what an inspirational figure he became.
Where “Becoming Cousteau” frustrates at times is its thin treatment of Cousteau’s work. The films and shows are represented with plentiful footage but not truly discussed or differentiated. It’s an odd choice, given Cousteau’s cinematic obsession (“I feel miserable if I don’t make a film”). As crucial as Cousteau’s environmental activism was to the movement’s growth in the 1970s and as interesting as his loving but troubled family dynamic was, giving short shrift to his film output could leave some less-familiar viewers unclear what all the fuss is about. It’s an odd direction to take for Garbus, who showed with her more prying “What Happened, Miss Simone?” how to make a subject’s art come leaping off the screen. A little of that film’s sense of derring-do might have made “Becoming Cousteau” a less respectful and more gripping work. An essential man demands an essential film. [B]